Ah, yes, the holidays. Full of tinsel, twinkling lights and family and friends coming together to laugh and connect over a delicious meal. Or that’s the movie version, anyway. In real life, holidays can mean stress, empty bank accounts and often more fights with our partners. Some studies even suggest that despite our sweater season cuddle-buddy desires, holidays are a peak time for breakups.
If you’ve ever struggled with snapping at your partner as the holidays draw nearer, you’re not alone. What exactly are we fighting about? According to Blair Glaser, psychotherapist and relationship coach, there’s plenty of fodder. “Whose traditions they’re going to follow, whose parents are going to get more time. Money, always a classic one,” she says. “And in certain couples, of course, there’s stuff that comes up around religion and how they want to raise their kids.”
According to Glaser, a big reason these arguments happen is lack of preparation. Rather than having a frank conversation at the beginning of the season about what each of the partner’s goals is, “it all gets hyped up in the crazy consumer rush,” she says. “And there’s no time to really take the different pressures into consideration, and so people tend to take them out on each other.”
Of course, all the other factors that weigh on your relationship matter too. Glaser says that whether a couple knows how to negotiate can be a make-or-break factor in how they get through the holidays. “You’re going to come to the table with your traditions, and they’re important to you for a variety of reasons,” she says. These traditions are often charged with emotion because they’re deeply important to us. “They offer a feeling of comfort and familiarity and tribal belonging and also connect us to our childhoods,” she says.
But their importance doesn’t mean they shouldn’t shift and change. “What we don’t get to see about tradition is that amidst all of that comfort and connection sometimes is this feeling of calcification, like there’s no room for spontaneity because that’s just the way we’ve always done it, and it becomes routinized.”
Rather than get stuck trying to capture traditions of our childhoods, Glaser feels it’s important for the individuals to evaluate what they most value about the holidays and then share that with their partner. From there, she recommends viewing it as cocreating a holiday experience together.
Even if you come up with the perfect holiday plan for your relationship, you might face some pushback when sharing your plans with your families. “If you’re a young couple in your 20s or 30s, you have been a child in your family longer than you’ve been an adult,” she says. This can lead to tension in families even outside the holidays, and she says getting some guidance through this period doesn’t hurt. “You’re an adult, and now you’re going to be an equal player,” she says. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.
Still, for some partners, the holidays aren’t and haven’t been a joyous occasion, whether that’s because of grief or other negative feelings. In these couples, Glaser recommends challenging the idea that partners have to spend their time together. “If somebody’s really enthusiastic about the holidays and loves going back home and the other doesn’t have those feelings and doesn’t necessarily want to feel strung along and isolated because their experience is so different, maybe they don’t have to be together that whole time,” she says.
So before we find ourselves knee-deep in the holiday season, have a conversation with your partner. Glaser has a worksheet that helps guide people through important questions like, “What do the holidays mean for you?” and “What is our Plan B?” Come to some understanding of what each of you is hoping to get out of the season and communicate throughout the month.
Once the holidays are over, have a recap of how each partner felt it went. Glaser says this step is vital. What worked and didn’t? If you’re still feeling some hurt or confusion, she recommends working through on your own or with a friend or counselor before approaching your partner about it.
But do have the conversation. It could be the path to experiencing one of those movie moments.